Every year, reports on industry employment reveal how women are underrepresented on the writers’ credits in television. In the US and the UK, women’s share of television employment has remained at under 30%. Women showrunners (creators, executive producers and writers) account for only 22% of showrunners in the US. Women of colour make up just 4%. Once the bothersome newcomer in the entertainment market, subscription streaming services are shaking up the system and showing their more traditional rivals how innovation can lead to market dominance.
Two key points separate the production of subscription video on demand original content from the more traditional “linear” television model, where content is programmed to broadcast at one specific time.
First, producers such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu have flexibility in the programming they commission. For example, without being restricted by commercial breaks and channel scheduling, episodes can run shorter or longer than a conventional drama (usually 45-50 minutes) or comedy (22-28 minutes). Being less accountable to programme sponsors, online original series can also tackle more controversial subject matter. But most importantly, they can commission content from a more diverse range of people with different voices.
The second key difference between subscription video on demand and linear programming is their commissioning processes. Amazon completely shook up the convention of the “pilot season” (where initial episodes of new content are made then dropped or pushed forward depending on their anticipated success) with its own version of the “pilot” process.
In Amazon’s version, anyone could submit an idea for original content through an online portal. In this break from the “who you know” system of commissioning, Amazon made the pilots viewable by its Prime customers, who can then vote for the content they want to see produced into a full series.
This democratisation of viewing is also influenced by the feature that is at the very core of on-demand viewing – we watch what we want, when we want, for however long we want. We watch on our laptops, on our tablets, on our smart phones and on our home smart televisions. Importantly, all of this has helped increase programming about women, created by women.
A man’s world
Television production has traditionally been a man’s world. Evidence for the media industries shows that people in positions of power over hiring will employ those they feel are most similar to their existing teams. So, for a team of white men, another white man will typically be seen as a “safer” hire than a woman or a person of colour. When the odds are loaded against women like this, it becomes harder for a woman to get her foot in the door.
In addition to these “homogenous” hiring practices, the employment of women in creative and cultural industries declines sharply after the age of 35. These industries have not been conducive to motherhood, maternity leave or care-giving. Far more so than men in television, women in television report that they were made to feel they could either have successful careers, or be mothers, with no middle ground.
By its very nature, television runs on short-term contracts, long and unsociable hours and informal recruitment practices. For those lacking a family network of childminders or the financial stability to hire flexible child carers, it is near impossible to have it all.
This is where original online content can shine. These series are, for the most part, being made by production companies – but the commissioners can now order content that speaks to women. Previously, an unproduced writer needed the right contacts to have a series picked up. Now she can now pitch directly to Amazon Studios.
Original content distributors are responding. A Paste Magazine piece lists the “top Netflix Original” series, and stories focusing on women are beginning to climb the ranks. Grace and Frankie (2015) studies the lives of two older women whose husbands have left them to begin a relationship with one another.
Sense8 (2015) features women in leading roles including LGBTQ women and women of colour. Glow (2017) follows a team of female wrestlers in the 1980s, while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015) is a comedy exploring a woman getting back on her feet after being imprisoned in a bunker for 15 years.
These series create a discussion about what is hidden on most mainstream television. They are about women – but not about “traditional” romantic entanglements, shoe shopping and mean teenagers.
So the question now is, will we see a knock-on effect in the employment of women writers for scripted series? Or will the industry reproduce its gendered norms and continue the pattern of white, male, middle-class dominance? Time will tell. But for now, original on-demand content has steered the industry to a turning point, bringing women’s voices to our many screens.
Kirsten Stoddart is a Postgraduate Researcher in Television, S.V.o.D and Gender at the University of Salford. This article first appeared in The Conversation.